In 1813, her thirty-eighth year, Jane Austen published her second novel Pride and Prejudice. She had begun this work in 1796, when she was twenty-one years old, calling it “First Impressions.” It had so delighted her family that her father had tried, without success, to have it published. Eventually, Austen put it aside, probably not to return to it until her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, appeared in 1811. “First Impressions” is no longer extant, but it was presumably radically rewritten, because Pride and Prejudice is in no way an apprenticeship novel but a completely mature work. Pride and Prejudice continues to be the author’s most popular novel, perhaps because readers share Darcy’s admiration for the “liveliness” of Elizabeth Bennet’s mind.
The original title, “First Impressions,” focuses on the initial errors of judgment out of which the story develops, whereas the title Pride and Prejudice, besides suggesting the kind of antithetical topic that delighted rationalistic eighteenth century readers, indicates the central conflicts that characterized the relationships between Elizabeth and Darcy, and between Jane Bennet and Bingley.
As in all of Austen’s novels, individual conflicts are defined and resolved within a rigidly delimited social context, in which relationships are determined by wealth and rank. The oft-quoted opening sentence establishes the societal values that underlie the main conflict: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s opening dialogue concerning the eligible Bingley explores this truth. Devoid of individuality, Mrs. Bennet is nevertheless well attuned to society’s edicts. Mr. Bennet, an individualist to the point of eccentricity, represents neither personal conviction nor social conviction, and he views with equal indifference Bingley’s right to his own reason for settling there and society’s right to see him primarily as a potential husband. Having repudiated society, Mr. Bennet cannot take seriously either the claims of the individual or the social order.
As the central character, Elizabeth, her father’s favorite and her mother’s least favorite child, must come to terms with the conflicting values implicit in her parents’ antithetical characters. She is like her father in her scorn of society’s conventional judgments, but she champions the concept of individual merit independent of money and rank. She is, indeed, prejudiced against the prejudices of society. From this premise, she attacks Darcy’s pride, assuming that it derives from the causes that Charlotte Lucas identifies: “with family, fortune, everything in his favour . . . he has a right to be proud.”
Flaunting her contempt for money, Elizabeth indignantly spurns Charlotte’s advice that Jane ought to make a calculated play for Bingley’s affections. She loftily argues, while under the spell of Wickham’s charm, that young people who are truly in love should be unconcerned about financial standing. As a champion of the individual, Elizabeth prides herself on her discriminating judgment and boasts that she is a student of character. Significantly, it is Darcy who warns her against prejudiced conclusions, reminding her that her experience is quite limited. Darcy is not simply the representative of a society that primarily values wealth and consequence—as Elizabeth initially views him—but also a citizen of a larger society than the village to which Elizabeth has been confined by circumstance. Consequently, it is only when she begins to move into Darcy’s world that she can judge with true discrimination both individual merit and the dictates of the society that she has rejected. Fundamentally honest, she revises her conclusions as new experiences warrant, and in the case of Darcy and Wickham she ends up radically altering her opinion.
More significant than the obviously ironic reversals, however, is the growing revelation of Elizabeth’s unconscious commitment to society. Her original condemnation of Darcy’s pride coincides with the verdict of Meryton society. Moreover, she shares society’s regard for wealth. Even while denying the importance of Wickham’s poverty, she countenances his pursuit of the ugly Miss King’s fortune, discerning her own inconsistency only after she learns of his bad character. Most revealing, when Lydia Bennet runs off with Wickham, Elizabeth instinctively understands the judgment of society when she laments that Wickham would never marry a woman without money.
Almost unconsciously, Elizabeth acknowledges a connection between wealth and human values at the crucial moment when she first looks upon Pemberley, the Darcy estate. She is not entirely joking when she tells Jane that her love for Darcy began when she first saw his beautiful estate. Elizabeth’s experiences, especially her discoveries of the well-ordered Pemberley and Darcy’s tactful generosity to Lydia and Wickham, lead her to differentiate between Charlotte’s theory that family and fortune bestow a “right to be proud” and Darcy’s position that the intelligent person does not indulge in false pride. Darcy’s pride is real, but it is regulated by responsibility. Unlike his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who relishes the distinction of rank, he disapproves less of the Bennets’ undistinguished family and fortune than of the lack of propriety displayed by most of the family. Therefore, Elizabeth scarcely overstates her case when, at the end, she assures her father that Darcy has no improper pride.
Elizabeth begins by rejecting the values and restraints of society as they are represented by such people as her mother, the Lucases, Miss Bingley, and Lady Catherine. Instead, she initially upholds the claims of the individual, which are elsewhere represented only by her whimsical father. By the end of the novel, the heart of her conflict appears in the contrast between her father and Darcy. She loves her father and has tried to overlook his lack of decorum in conjugal matters, but she has been forced to see that his freedom is really irresponsibility, the essential cause of Jane’s misery as well as Lydia’s amorality. The implicit comparison between Mr. Bennet’s and Darcy’s approach to matrimony illustrates their different methods of dealing with society’s restraints. Unrestrained by society, having been captivated by the inferior Mrs. Bennet’s youth and beauty, Mr. Bennet consulted only his personal desires and made a disastrous marriage. Darcy, in contrast, defies society only when he has made certain that Elizabeth is a woman worthy of his love and lifetime devotion.
When Elizabeth confronts Lady Catherine, her words are declarative not of absolute defiance of society but of the selective freedom that is her compromise and very similar to Darcy’s: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” Austen does not falsify the compromise. If Elizabeth dares with impunity to defy the society of Rosings, Longbourne, and Meryton, she does so only because Darcy is exactly the man for her and, further, because she can anticipate “with delight . . . the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance . . . at Pemberley.” In a sense, her marriage to Darcy is a triumph of the individual over society; but, paradoxically, Elizabeth achieves her most genuine conquest of pride and prejudice only after she accepts the full social value of her judgment that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”
Granting the full force of the snobbery, the exploitation, the inhumanity of all the evils that diminish the human spirit and are inherent in a materialistic society, the novel clearly confirms the cynical “truth” of the opening sentence. At the same time, without evading the degree of Elizabeth’s capitulation to society, it affirms the vitality and the independent life that is possible, at least to an Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice, like its title, offers deceptively simple antitheses that yield up the complexity of life itself.